Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 19, 2018

A Chelsea Girl (1988), by Barbara Hanrahan

It was the title that caught my eye at the library: I’m ‘a Chelsea girl’ too, of sorts, because I lived on the Kings Road for six months in a block of flats also famously inhabited by the actor Joyce Grenfell, memorable to us because she complained about my little sister’s nappies hanging out on the roof-top garden (from which we watched the fireworks on Guy Fawkes night).  The blurb of A Chelsea Girl lured me straight away:

‘All our family was Chelsea, but it wasn’t the Chelsea of the posh houses in Turk’s Row and Cheyne Walk – you never saw gentry hanging about our turning. And the only artists we knew were the pavement artists down on their knees along the embankment’.
Sarah Hodge was named after a drunk who came down Keppel Street and sat on the doorstep singing on the night of the child’s birth: not a promising start for a girl in 1890s London. But while Sarah’s is not a world of culture or cash, it is a world of noise, of colour, of love: a world of toffee-apple men, Italians selling Lemon Ice, Pink Ice and Ice-cream Plain, gypsies and flower girls, rag shops and boozers.
Her story is both the story of a bygone London and the story of a girl’s passage into womanhood. Through ‘ordinary’ eyes we see tragedy, courage, love and sacrifice; children who are wanted, children got rid of with boiled currants and gin; men loved, men despised.
This is a remarkably powerful tale. beautifully told; a work of great talent and vigour.

I don’t remember whether the Kings Road was ‘posh’ when I lived there, but when I went back to have a look at it in 2001, it certainly was.  The toy shop where I used to spend my sixpence pocket money on the street level ground floor had become a high-end Bang and Olufsen electronics store.  But I peeked in through the glass above the door and the stairs were just the same: a big effort for little legs as I recall it.  I was five back then, I think.  Now it’s a designer shoe store called Elia B, next to a Jaeger store.  You can see it at Google maps here.

Barbara Hanrahan (1939-1991) evokes nostalgia in an entirely different way in her eleventh book, A Chelsea Girl. She was a notable Australian author who went to England in 1963 to continue her studies in art, returning to Adelaide in the early 1980s.  She made an impressive career here and internationally as a painter and printmaker, and you can see some of her artworks here at the Art Gallery of NSW.  But she also merits a whole column entry in the Oxford Companion to Australian Literature where they say that she was stimulated to begin writing by the death of her grandmother in 1968.  You can see her list of works at Wikipedia but it’s the Companion that describes her themes and style:

A writer with a plain but suggestive prose style, Hanrahan is a brilliant creator of atmosphere.  She is particularly preoccupied with the contrast between the prim respectability of nineteenth-century society, especially Adelaide society, and its seamy or horrific underside.  She has described Adelaide as a ‘terribly sinister place’, and sees her novels as ‘concerned with contrasts, contradictions, beauty and horror, love and death, frivolity and menace; the precisely-detailed world of substance, the darker world of instinct; the queerness of mind split from body, the absurd fantasy of the “ordinary”. (Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, edited by William H. Wilde, Joy Hooton and Barry Andrews, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1985, ISBN 0195542339 p.315)

If you can lay your hands on a copy of the Macquarie Pen Anthology of Australian Literature you’ll find her entry there on page 948, and you can read a short story called ‘Tottie Tippett’ which the AustLit database (allowing me two of five free views) tells me was first published by Grafton Books in a short story collection called Dream People (1987), and also in The Adelaide Review 26 May 1986.

Although my copy of the Companion predates the publication of A Chelsea Girl by three years, and the setting is London not Adelaide, those preoccupations are certainly on display in the novel.  It took a while for me to become absorbed in the plot because – as you might expect with a setting in overcrowded working-class London at the turn of the 20th century, there are multiple characters tumbling over each other in a collage and it’s a bit hard to keep track of them all in an episodic novel.  However, Sarah’s first-person narrative is vivid and Hanrahan has captured a working-class tone without overdoing it and making it a trial to read. (Though I did have to Google for the meaning of goffer (crimp or flute (a lace edge or frill) with heated irons) and for blooming sight mooby (which remains a mystery).

Sarah’s life in poverty is depicted in graphic but not depressing detail, but Hanrahan doesn’t idealise the shortcomings of the community she portrays.  People make their lives harder with excessive drinking which Sarah seems to regard as normal, and they let each other down when good intentions fail to materialise, as when Sarah herself has to finish paying off wedding gifts from her relations. Meals are rudimentary and sometimes there’s not enough to eat, but it’s not depicted as a complaint.  Sarah’s voice is effective, consistent and chatty, as if she were reminiscing over a cup of tea.  (As perhaps someone very like her was, with the author, in London).

The narrative becomes more compelling when the world intrudes.  Kings and their coronations come and go without much change, but that starts to alter with the advent of World War 1.  Sarah has tried working in service and disliked it, but the absence of men gives her the opportunity to work in more interesting occupations.  Her brother Ted is killed but her boyfriend Tom survives and Sarah marries him when he returns.  (An interesting snippet is that people were warned that the deadly Spanish flu would be spread by the numerous Welcome Home parties, but I think that the crowded and obviously unhygienic conditions of working class life might have had more to do with it.)

Gentrification begins in the 1930s:

I was back to my old part of Chelsea, where I was born.  The Admiral Keppel public house was still on the corner, but it was called Sloane Avenue, not Keppel Street. The back wall of the Marlborough Road School, where we’d built our grottoes, was still there, though we’d never have had the Gay Dog’s Beauty Parlour at the end of the street in our day.  Cranmer Court, Sloane Avenue Mansions and Nell Gwynn House that had a statue of Nell on the front, stood where the small houses had been.  Where us poor people had lived they were building the Chelsea Cloisters that were going to be ten storeys of the most up-to-date flats in London with maids, valets, refrigerators, central heating and telephone boxes on every floor.  But across the road there was still the row of small shops, though the names on the shop fronts were different.  There was a tailor’s, an oil shop, a barber’s, and then came Rosie’s; then there was a signwriter’s, a china shop and a bootmaker’s. (p.135)

In a building that sounds much like where I lived in middle-class comfort, Sarah and Tom had the top two floors above Rosie’s shop (the café where Sarah worked).  They paid a pound a week to Rosie for three bedrooms and access to the kitchen.  It was the first place they’d lived that had electric light, but there was still no bathroom:

…so we’d go to the Chelsea Baths for a boiling hot bath.  You took your own soap and flannel and if you couldn’t get dry on one towel you paid a penny for another.  (p.136)

As Sarah tells it, women had umpteen children one after the other, but she has difficulties with the birth of her only son Charlie, only to lose him in a direct hit on a bomb shelter during WW2.  The war is vividly evoked, and this scene reminds me of my father telling me the same thing about the landscape of his childhood in London disappearing day by day:

Every morning when the All Clear sounded, you’d come out and see what new lot of houses had been knocked down.  Broken glass was everywhere and you’d see furniture hanging out of windows.  There was a Blitz smell from the burnt houses, burnt clothes, brick dust, stale water, gas and sewers.  The smell was everywhere; it was if you’d come back from holiday to find you’d left your dishcloth wet.

Sarah lives on to witness the Swinging Sixties and her niece Katy making wedding dresses just like Princess Diana’s, and long enough too to have her funeral money stolen by a man who got into her place by pretending to be from the Water Board. She’s a resilient old soul, though, and she never loses her faith despite the hardships of her life:

I never laid my head down any night without I didn’t say a prayer and thank the Almighty for seeing me safely through another day.  (p. 208)

The $15,000 Barbara Hanrahan Fellowship was established in Hanrahan’s memory by her partner, inventor and sculptor Jo Steele, and it’s awarded every year at the Adelaide Festival.  The obituary in the SA Advertiser (4/12/1991) was written by the SA Arts Minister Ms Levy, an indication in itself of the high esteem in which Hanrahan was held.

PS The book cover illustration is by Barbara Hanrahan.

Author: Barbara Hanrahan
Title: A Chelsea Girl
Publisher: Grafton Books (a division of Collins Publishing London) 1988
ISBN: 0246131667 / 9780246131669
Source: Port Phillip Library Service (St Kilda Branch)

There was a second-hand copy at Fishpond on the day I looked: Chelsea Girl


  1. I want to read more Barbara Hanrahan. I’ve read and reviewed her autobiographical novel The scent of eucalyptus, and loved it. And was only just thinking of her the other day – perhaps UQP is republishing her? (I can’t recollect where I saw the reference that prompted my memory.) She died too young.


    • I’ve got The Frangipani Garden on my TBR, and I think that’s the one that UQP is reissuing. But I’d love to read The Scent of Eucalyptus…


  2. Hi Lisa, I think I have read all of Barbara Hanrahn’s books. I once saw her in Melbourne with a man – probably her husband – promoting her artwork. She seemed to be very shy and wasn’t enjoying the limelight. The Scent of Eucalpytus is a great storyand so is The Frangipani Garden. Her characters are wonderful. Funnily enough I bought her book of short stories, Dream People ($2.00) on Thursday from an Op Shop. I will read Tottie Tippett tonight.


    • Well, that’s a coincidence:)
      I read in one of those sources that she had 21 one-woman shows of her artwork, which is no small accomplishment, I think.


  3. How did you feel reading about an area that you ‘owned’? It makes a difference I think. I find many books of this type have a researched feel. I’d like it better if I thought she had talked to an old lady over cups of tea.


    • There were moments in the book which were really authentic. When we were there in 2001, and I’d just stepped back from looking through the door and up the stairs, I turned round to speak to The Spouse – and there was a Chelsea Pensioner in his red coat. (See I hadn’t seen one, and I hadn’t heard anyone mention one in decades, but as soon as I saw him, I knew who and what he was because they were such a common sight when I was a little girl. So when I saw it referenced it Hanrahan’s book, it took me right back to my memories of walking along the King’s Road as a child.


  4. Gentrification is a terrible thing – give me original, grungy and crumbling but with atmosphere any day. They’re tearing the heart out of Soho in London and I hate it.


    • It’s an issue all over the world, from India to Indonesia and all through Africa as well…
      But there are two sides to every story of a community broken up to make way for posh new places. Many years ago I knew an elderly lady of very limited means who lived in what were the slums of Carlton (now very expensive real estate indeed). This was before Thatcherism had spread its brutal way across western democracies and so it was that the Liberal (i.e. small l-, conservative) government exercised its social conscience and razed the slums to build not stylish flats for the wealthy but more prosaic mega-flats for the poor. Melbourne was outraged because they were a blight on the landscape and today you can find any amount of social workers who decried putting all the social problems together and any amount of historians who bemoan the loss of community. But Stella loved her flat. For the first time in her life she had a secure home of her own and no landlord to bully her, she had hot water on tap, she had space to spread out her beloved footy team memorabilia and she had somewhere she wasn’t ashamed to entertain friends who were better off than she was. And there were no rats…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, that kind of thing happened in the 1950s and 1960s here and there were some beautiful brutalist buildings constructed which it’s fashionable to decry nowadays. But they were built with a utopian vision and an aim for all to have a decent roof over their heads – a vision which has really gone by the by in the ghastly materialistic modern world.


        • Yes, in the west it’s fashionable to sneer at the large concrete apartment blocks built by Stalin, but in the new Russian economy (we were told by our Russian tour guide) they sell for a fortune because they were well-built, good sized, and central to public transport. And having seen them for myself, I don’t think they’re any less attractive than apartments of that era that I’ve seen elsewhere. Of course nobody puts the words utopian and Stalin together in the same sentence, but the Soviets did have a vision of housing everyone and worked towards it right from the beginnings of the Revolution.

          When I was young we never saw homeless people in the streets, but now it’s commonplace. I bought a scarf for a homeless man just last week, and another man bought him a blanket because it was so cold and he was sleeping on the pavement…

          Liked by 1 person

          • We had plenty of that happening over here too with the Victorian slums torn down and multi-storey flats built. The ideals were great and as you describe, going from a damp grotty terraced house to one with electricity and bathrooms was a huge step. But they feel into disrepair and ended up much like the housing projects in Chicago. Those that survive are *surprise* being gentrified. Homelessness shouldn’t exist in the modern world – period – but it seems to be on the increase now. It sucks.


            • Yes. We had a Prime Minister once who made homelessness a high priority when he took office in 2007, but his own party kicked him out and that was the end of that…

              Liked by 1 person

  5. […] (1939-1991) to me.  Where the Queens all Strayed (1978) was her fourth novel and for me, after A Chelsea Girl (1987) it’s the second one that I’ve read.   I keep looking out for her books (when […]


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